Trump’s method for deciding who deserved clemency was, not surprisingly, very unconventional. The New York Times reported that the majority of the list was sent to the White House counsel’s office by Ivanka Trump, the former president’s daughter and senior advisor. The president was also lobbied on behalf of potential clemency candidates by attorney’s like Bradford Cohen and Rudy Giuliani.
Clemency, which can include full pardon, sentence reduction, or election reprieve, has historically fallen under the purview of the Office of the Pardon Attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice. Petitions are purportedly evaluated on a variety of criteria including the applicant’s conduct since conviction and the seriousness of the crime, and then reviewed by the U.S. Attorney General. Applicants can make their case based on a disparity of sentence, health, or assistance given to police or prosecutors. PLN has noted for decades the inherent conflict of interest in having the DOJ, who convicted the people seeking clemency, being the agency which then recommends clemency to the president.
It is a long process. There are no time limits for reviews, nor is there a system for appeals. About 14,000 clemency petitions were reviewed during the Trump administration. 180 were denied, and 7,800 were closed without action. Most of the rest are still floating around somewhere in the system. Close to 300 clemency petitions were granted by the administration during that period, but it is unclear how many of them had come through the usual process at the Pardon Attorney’s office.
The clemency petitions that Trump granted reflect a dizzying mix of cronyism, appeals to his base, and an odd relationship to hip-hop.
Most of the headlines generated by Trump’s last-minute acts of clemency revolved around his friends and allies. Number one on that list was Steve Bannon, former White House chief strategist, and Trump campaign CEO. Bannon has, in recent years, been out of favor with the Trump faction over critical comments about the former president and his family that were published in 2018, but he received a full pardon for his role in a scheme that allegedly defrauded Trump donors out of $1 million as part of a border wall fund raising effort. Bannon had not yet been to trial on the case.
Also receiving a full pardon was Elliot Broidy, a major fundraiser for Trump’s 2016 campaign. Broidy pleaded guilty in 2020 to acting as an unregistered foreign agent after accepting millions of dollars from Chinese and Malaysian interests to lobby the Trump White House.
Former National Rifle Association official Paul Erickson was granted a full pardon in his connection with a scheme to defraud energy investors. Erickson had been sentenced to seven years in a federal prison last year.
Three former Republican Congressmen were also granted pardons. Rick Renzi of Arizona was convicted in 2013 of extortion, bribery, insurance fraud, money laundering, and racketeering. Robin Hayes of North Carolina and Duke Cunningham of California were both pardoned for bribery convictions.
Perhaps with no sense of irony, a President who campaigned on the promise of “draining the swamp” seemed to be especially sympathetic in using the pardon power to free those swamp denizens convicted of political corruption, bribery and otherwise selling out their offices, voters and taxpayers.
While Trump may have been more extravagant in his pardons of friends and political allies than his predecessors, he was certainly not the first president to do so. Bill Clinton famously pardoned financier and donor Marc Rich, who was a fugitive at the time, and the Clinton White House also pardoned the president’s brother Roger along with former business partner Susan McDougal.
The Constitution does not bar pardons on the grounds of self-interest or conflict of interest.
More in line with recent presidential pardon trends were the grants Trump made to prisoners serving long, mandatory-minimum driven sentences for non-violent offenses. This trend began to gain momentum earlier in the Trump presidency when reality-TV star Kim Kardashian successfully petitioned for the release of Alice Johnson, a 63-year-old grandmother serving a life sentence for drug possession. Ms. Johnson, who has been working with the prisoner advocacy group #Cuts, recommended many of the people Trump pardoned on his last day.
Darrell Frazier and Craig Cesal were both serving life sentences for drug charges. Trump granted both full pardons. Also on this list were Lavonne Roach, who was serving a 30-year sentence for drugs, and Michael Pelletier, a paraplegic who was serving a life sentence for a marijuana conspiracy offense. Trump also pardoned Chalana McFarland, who had been serving a 30-year sentence for mortgage fraud since 2005.
Trump’s action on lengthy sentences for non-violent offenders is a continuation of Barack Obama’s efforts to combat the effects of the mandatory minimum sentencing laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s. These laws leave judges powerless to exercise discretion of grant leniency. In 2017, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that nearly 56 percent of federal prisoners were serving time for an offense with a mandatory minimum sentence. According to the advocacy group Buried Alive, 4,000 federal prisoners are serving life sentences for non-violent drug offenses.
In 2014, then-President Obama began the Clemency Initiative in an effort to undo the injustices of mandatory minimums. The White House received 13,000 clemency recommendations from the Office of the Pardon Attorney, and Obama subsequently granted 1,700 petitions for clemency or full pardon. Trump’s efforts were, obviously, not nearly so extensive, but they operated in the same vein.
Several of Trump’s other pardon decisions were notably less conventional. Some of the more perplexing names on the list are several notable figures from the world of hiphop music. Many commentators had noticed that just a few days before the election, convicted felon and superstar rapper Lil Wayne (born Dwayne Michael Garter Jr.) paid a very public visit to President Trump. The visit was all the more remarkable because Lil Wayne was facing a federal firearms charge. That charge has now been erased by a pardon.
Lil Wayne was joined on the pardon list by rapper Kodak Black and longtime Jay-Z associate Desiree Perez. These pardons have changed some minds. Snoop Dogg, formerly a Trump critic, praised the former president when he learned that Trump had pardoned former Death Row records financier Michael Harris.
Trump also catered to his base with pardons, much as he did earlier in his term when he pardoned Joe Arpaio, former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, and immigration hawk. On his last day, Trump pardoned four Blackwater contractors convicted of murdering Iraqi civilians and two Border Patrol agents who shot a fleeing man at the border.
The sweepstakes-like nature of the clemency system has been criticized for years, and advocates are hoping Trump’s erratic use of the pardon-power will be a catalyst for change. Many hope that President Biden will bring reforms because of his role in pushing through the tough 1994 crime bill, the source of many mandatory minimum laws. Legal scholar Rachel Barkow wrote, “It’s the most direct way to confront Biden’s past. Some of the very people who need clemency in federal prisons are there because of crime bills Biden supported.” If Biden does not act, future clemency petitions will continue to same chances of a long-shot lottery ticket.
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